Q&A With Wheatland (WI) Superintendent Jason Tadlock

JULY 2013

Jason TadlockJason Tadlock is the superintendent of Wheatland School District in southeastern Wisconsin. Tadlock has used value added for more than seven years to raise his district’s student achievement numbers. He was recently featured in an article in Education Week.

Q: What is your district like and how long have you worked there?

JT: Our district is located in the western, largely rural part of Kenosha County. It has one building housing 450 students ranging from fourth to eighth graders, 45 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. We have 60 staff, of which about 35 are teachers. I came into the district in 2010 after working in New Glarus as a principal.

Q: When and why did you commit the district to using value added?

JT: I had become familiar with value added during my time in New Glarus. When I came into Wheatland, the student achievement numbers weren’t exactly where we wanted them to be. There was a definite sense within the district that our achievement numbers weren’t truly reflecting how effective we were at teaching our students and progressing them. So we shifted our focus to a growth model, where we wanted to focus on student learning. Our thought was that, once we had student growth where we wanted it, the achievement would follow. What’s really nice about focusing on growth is that, when you are heading in the right direction and taking the appropriate steps, you see your numbers change rapidly. If we were just focused on student achievement, it would take us years to see the end product of our work, which can be very frustrating because you really have no idea if you’re on the right track. If someone has a better way of measuring the impact we’re having on our students’ learning, I’d love to see it, but I haven’t seen a better formula or a better way of measuring our impact on our students.

Q: Did you research or consult other school districts that had set up value-added measurement systems?

JT: We did get out of our school district to look at the top programs that had instituted value-added models that were respected for their effectiveness. We wanted to know exactly what they were doing and what those systems looked like. I firmly believe in not reinventing the wheel. We were not interested in being trailblazers; we wanted to be right behind them, so we could learn from their mistakes and trials. We identified which districts had the experience, which had initiatives that had proven successful, and then we tweaked those programs to make them our own.

Q: How did you go about the process of increasing knowledge inside your school about how to use value added?

JT: (The district’s administration) went to its first value-added conference in the spring of 2011, where we received our first report. We were expecting pretty good scores overall and it was a big awakening for us that our value-added score wasn’t where it needed to be. Our growth just wasn’t there. We realized we needed to make some significant changes if we were going to have an impact on student growth.

Q: What were the next steps you identified after committing to making changes in your district based upon your value-added scores?

JT: We drafted a three-year plan, addressing practically everything we did in the school, from curriculum to teaching strategies to time structure. We implemented a one-on-one program and an in-depth RTI program. We coupled our value-added scores with MAP scores, AIMSweb and STAR scores, using those data points to confirm that what we’re doing is working. These data tools allow us to quickly identify whether we’re on track with student growth. Of course, this takes time, and to create the time, we set up regular ongoing meetings between our data specialist and our teachers throughout the year and devoted one teacher in-service day a month to training and getting teachers comfortable with the process. To make up that time, we got community approval to extend the school year by a week. This new in-service structure had an additional benefit: by eliminating our early release in-service time in lieu of full-day in-services, we added the equivalent of 7.5 more days of instruction.

Q: What have been the results?

JT: We’re two years into the plan now and I feel like our school has been transformed in just about every way. We went back this year, got the data on our new value-added scores, and as a result of all the work we’ve been doing, we were ecstatic to see our scores go way up. If you go back to the season before this past one, our math value added was 1.6, and it’s now 5.1-5.2 overall. Our reading score saw a significant jump as well, where we were in the bottom 25th percentile and we’re now in the top 25th percentile. We know we still have work to do, but we’ve come a long way.

Q: How have you communicated with your teachers about value added?

JT: The fact that value added takes into consideration factors such as social and economic status, disabilities, and so many other factors, that gives us a clear picture of how we’re doing with our students across the board and that’s important for us. When you utilize assessments to focus on what matters, which is student growth, I think teachers can get excited and behind that. When I was a teacher, I always thought we were measuring the wrong things, such as the correlation between social economics and performance. Standardized tests don’t paint a complete picture of student learning. With the higher level of poverty in our school district versus others in our area, it was a pretty easy sell for our staff to focus on growth. We tell our teachers, “You can’t control what your students walk into our building with - there’s a lot of components that are outside your control. So what we want you to do is be as effective as possible with your time with your students when you have them.” We wanted to get rid of conversations like, “Johnny comes from a difficult household.” We know Johnny has the capacity to grow, so let’s focus on growth and components we can control. Where Johnny ends up, we’ll see.

Q: Have you seen any concrete positive results after implementing your value-added model?

JT: Just three years ago, we had second highest percentage of net loss in open enrollment in the entire state. This coming year, for the first time in our school’s history, we will be positive on open enrollment as far as net gain and lost. From a financial standpoint, that’s a $750,000 impact on us, which represents about a 15 percent increase in our budgetary monies or resources. Now large districts may sneeze at that figure, but I think any district would love a 15 percent budget bump - that’s huge. That positive enrollment bump provides instant gratification and really helped confirm that we’re heading in the right direction, that what we’re doing for our students is good, and that parents and people who want to come to our district have been impressed as well. Parents are getting savvier and what all parents want is for their kids to fulfill their potential. When they see our growth rates and what we’re doing for our students - that is a convincing factor in getting parents to commit and want to send their students to Wheatland. I give parents a lot of credit for digging a little deeper to look at student growth and for using that as factor in choosing a school. And I give a lot of credit to VARC in raising the profile of that growth piece, which has been important. And I give a lot of credit to our district staff. We created a plan and we’ve followed it. We haven’t reached our full potential, but within five years, I think Wheatland will see its achievement numbers reach the top five percent of the schools in the state.